Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book review: Liberators, by Peter Schrijvers

Liberators would be welcome on the shelf of any arm chair general. The writing style is approachable to the casual history buff, while the Belgian civilian perspective offers a more comprehensive understanding of the war in Europe.

In his epilogue Peter Schrijvers quotes a short passage from Rebirth of the West*. Although pulled from another book, this line is a convenient representation of Liberators: The Allies and Belgian Society 1944–1945. The passage and Schrijvers' book both speak of Belgium's introduction to fascism, the suffering brought by the Germans, the military triumph of the Anglo-Americans, and the enthusiastic Belgian acceptance of American culture and politics:

"By the fall of 1944, however, the Nazis in Belgium had lost both the literal and the metaphorical battle. By then, as Duigan and Gann have noted, fascism 'no longer appeared—as it had in the 1930s—the cause of youth, and of a banner-waving future. Instead, the US and Britain had out-produced, out-organized, out-thought, and out-fought the Axis Powers.'" —Liberators, p.272

As a 21st century man living in a long-time and affluent democracy, I was a little startled to consider that fascism had ever appeared as the fresh way of the future. I suspect that the typical World War II history buff limits his reading to battles, military equipment, and war heroes. The ideological environment that brought on the war is ignored, as is the war's dramatic influence on European society. I myself am guilty of the same oversight. Initially, I looked to this book only as a source for details on Allied supply work in the port of Antwerp (and for that it is useful). Yet, I immediately became engrossed by the author's fascinating accounts of Belgian war-time life.

The Belgian people experienced diverse interactions with the Americans, British and Canadians. Liberating Allied troops were welcomed with great exuberance. The Belgian resistance struggled for respect. German collaborators were publicly shamed. Women were gripped by passion for the young Allied soldiers. Belgium's unemployed received work from the Allied military. A populace living under severe food and fuel rations resented Allied apparent wealth. American popular culture and goods were embraced. New politics were developed with a look to the Anglo-Americans.

In Liberators a depth of realism balances the popular view of idyllic European liberation. The author gives full attention to evidence for the Belgians' negative perceptions of the Allied forces. I reason this to be an adherence to the objective principle of completeness—not an attempt at radical revisionist history. Our understanding is indeed revised, yet Belgian gratitude and admiration for the Allied nations remain the defining qualities of their wartime relationship.

*from Rebirth of the West, The Americanization of the Democratic World, 1945-1958, by Duigan and Gann.

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